Victims lawyers defend Maryland’s Child Victims Act following Washington archdiocese challenge

From left to right, Barbara Hart of Grant & Eisenhofer, Rob Jenner of Jenner Law, and David Lorenz, director of the Maryland chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, are seen at a news conference about efforts seeking the release of a sealed report on abusive clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.


Attorneys for several men who say members of the clergy in the Archdiocese of Washington sexually abused them in Maryland decades ago defended on Friday the new law that allowed them to sue the Catholic Church: The Child Victims Act.

The filings from plaintiffs’ lawyers respond to a legal challenge from the Washington diocese last month, with the church’s attorneys arguing Maryland’s child victims law is unconstitutional, and that the men’s lawsuits, filed in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, should be dismissed as a result.

Archdiocese attorneys contend the legislature granted defendants immunity from child sex abuse lawsuits after the victim turns 38, when it expanded the statute of limitations to that age in 2017. They argue their legal protection stems from a rare provision in the law known as a statute of repose, which created “vested rights” that lawmakers cannot simply change.

Lawyers for the victims in the lawsuits disagree.

In their filing Friday, attorneys for a man who sued the Washington diocese in Montgomery County said the diocese’s lawyers’ interpretation of the law runs afoul of “well-settled principles set forth by the Maryland Supreme Court.”

“Applied here, those principles demonstrate that the law at issue here is a statute of limitations, which the General Assembly is free to modify under Maryland’s constitution,” wrote attorneys Robert K. Jenner, Philip C. Federico and Steven J. Kelly, all of whom are representing the man suing in Montgomery Circuit Court.

The Friday filings spelled out the differences between statutes of limitations and statutes of repose.

The only other known statute of repose in Maryland is in the construction industry, according to experts. In that context, it protects the likes of builders and architects from liability related to injuries sustained in their structures after a certain amount of time passes following completion.

Under the statute of repose, the clock for claims starts ticking when the building is deemed operational. It doesn’t matter when someone is injured.

With a statute of limitations, the law starts counting the period a person has to file a lawsuit from the time they sustain an injury.

That distinction, plaintiffs lawyers argued Friday, supports the position that the 2017 law was a statute of limitations.

“Very simply, the timeline does not begin to run until a child is sexually abused,” wrote the legal team behind the Prince George’s County lawsuit, a half dozen attorneys from the Baltimore law firms Schochor, Staton, Goldberg and Cardea, P.A. and Janet, Janet & Suggs, LLC.

The back-and-forth filings cut to the heart of a legal battle that likely won’t be resolved until the state Supreme Court determines whether the child victims law is constitutional.

Anticipating an immediate challenge in court, legislators last spring included a provision in the law, which took effect Oct. 1, allowing for a mid-lawsuit appeal. The appeal comes at a common stage of civil litigation where defendants ask the court to throw out a lawsuit on legal grounds.

Typically, when a trial court denies a motion to dismiss a lawsuit, the case proceeds toward trial. While plaintiffs almost always can appeal if a judge decides to throw out a lawsuit, the Child Victims Act specifically allows the defendant to appeal if a judge rules it’s constitutional and that the case should go to trial.

The impact of the legal proceedings in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties is being felt around the state: Judges, facing the prospect of going ahead with lengthy litigation based on a law with questions looming over its constitutionality, are likely to freeze those cases until the state’s high court decides on the Child Victims Act.

A class action complaint, the lawsuit in Prince George’s County alleges three men were sexually abused as children at the Catholic schools or churches they attended in the suburbs of Washington. The men “have suffered serious and permanent physical, emotional, and financial injuries,” because of the abuse. They say the Archdiocese either knew, or should have known, about its priests’ predatory ways.

In the Montgomery County lawsuit, a man says he suffered “horrific” sexual abuse while attending a church in Gaithersburg as a child at the hands of two priests, including one with a well-document history of abuse.

Because of the abuse, the man “experienced significant anguish, culminating in a mental breakdown,” the Montgomery County lawsuit said. “In addition to extreme emotional distress, he has experienced physical sickness and dramatic weight loss.”

The Baltimore Sun does not name victims of sexual abuse.

The Archdiocese of Washington denied allegations raised in both complaints in the legal filings where they argued the child victims law was unconstitutional.

In their filings Friday, the plaintiffs’ lawyers cited a report from Maryland’s Attorney General documenting decades of abuse and torture of children by clergy in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Laying out the findings of a four-year investigation, the report released in April detailed evidence of 156 clergy and other church officials abusing at least 600 children dating to the 1940s.

The General Assembly passed the Child Victims Act shortly after the report became public.

Maryland’s legislature “acted well within its power to remedy a societal ill of enormous proportions,” the legal team behind the Prince George’s County lawsuit wrote.

“The legislature established, as the public policy of Maryland, that sexual predators, their accomplices, and their facilitators must be called to account in civil court for their actions,” the lawyers wrote. “Moreover, by eliminating the statute of limitations, the General Assembly recognized the psychological injury and other obstacles that have long prevented victims from coming forward.”

Plaintiffs lawyers said Friday that Maryland courts have determined that policy considerations can be helpful in determining whether a law is a statute of limitations or a statute of repose.

“Quite simply, the legislature could not have intended to provide a special and exceedingly rare legislative privilege — a statute of repose — in favor of every person and organization charged with protecting a child from sexual abuse but who failed to do so,” the lawyers behind the Prince George’s lawsuit wrote.

Even if the 2017 law granted the church and other entities immunity from civil actions stemming from decades old child sex abuse, those legal protections would not extend to the archdiocese’s “longstanding and extensive cover-up.” The lawsuits in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties allege the archdiocese’s actions amounted to “fraudulent concealment,” meaning the lawsuits might be able to proceed even if 2017 provided some immunity.

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